Recently Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a partnership to make some of their classes freely available online. The move, which attracted widespread attention in the United States, is the latest development in the open courses movement, which over the last few years has prompted growing numbers of universities to put videos and transcripts of entire lectures up on the Web, where anyone can have access to them at no cost.
MIT’s online courses already have a huge global following. In March, for example, some 120,000 people signed up for its circuits and electronics class. According to some observers, we are witnessing the emergence of a new model of postsecondary education that will change the way universities operate. “There’s a tsunami coming,” Stanford University president John Hennessy said recently. Online courses will never replace the crucial elements of a university education. But Canadian universities, which have been lagging in this area, must get into the game and reap the benefits that this new technology offers.
Open courses are a logical extension of every university’s core commitment to preserve and disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. It’s likely that Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the other institutions that are investing heavily in this area also recognize that making their best classes available to anyone with an Internet connection will raise their global profile and burnish their reputation. Because universities worldwide are now competing with each other for talent, these online courses may help them recruit the best students and faculty from Brazil, India, China and beyond.
Canadian universities are engaged in this same global competition, but their open course efforts pale in comparison to what Harvard and MIT are doing. From Queen’s University, one can download recordings of a few individual lectures and special events, including a panel discussion on climate change and a talk about Islam in medieval Europe. The University of Victoria offers podcasts of convocation speeches and short introductions to some of its academic departments. The University of Montreal’s site includes an eclectic mix of talks on subjects ranging from nuclear weapons to language politics. These efforts to make university events available to a wide audience are laudable, but they don’t come close to the dozens of complete lecture courses by top professors that Yale and Berkeley, for example, now offer.
Because Canada’s future increasingly depends on its universities’ ability to compete with their global peers, the stakes are high. Only top-flight universities can produce the well-educated graduates and cutting-edge research that economic innovation requires. They can also attract foreign students who with luck will settle in Canada and help satisfy our growing need for talented immigrants. A national open courses project would be an easy and relatively inexpensive way to demonstrate why students should come to study in Canada. It could be our universities’ calling card to the world.
Domestically, this project could also improve the quality of our public life. Because the vast majority of Canadian universities are publicly funded, they have a mandate to contribute to the public good beyond the education of the students who come to campus and pay tuition each year. Moreover, at a time when we’re increasingly worried about the fracturing of our political and intellectual life along regional lines, open courses in Canadian history, politics, and law could increase our understanding of fundamental issues and yield better-informed public debate.
What might a pan-Canadian open courses project look like? Instead of following the current model in which each university acts independently, the leading institutions from across the country should build a single national open course portal to which they would contribute entire lecture courses in a range of fields. Citizens could watch multiple versions of the same basic courses taught by different professors across the country and see a variety of ways of approaching the same questions. Imagine listening to historians from UBC, the University of Toronto, Laval University and Dalhousie University lecture on the development of Canada from its origins to the present day. Imagine comparing how constitutional law professors in Quebec and Saskatchewan, for instance, interpret the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Imagine following courses on Canadian literature or politics taught by this country’s best teachers in both official languages.
A national open courses initiative will not singlehandedly transform our universities into global powerhouses. Recorded lectures are no substitute for the on-campus university experience or for investments in advanced research. Computers can’t lead intense small-group discussions, give rigorous feedback on essays or help students think through intellectual puzzles. Canadian universities need to make clear that new technology can’t produce well-educated undergraduates on the cheap, because the most important elements of a university education depend on unchanging principles and strong relationships between professors and students. But despite these limitations, what’s possible in higher education is changing rapidly. Instead of following in the wake of other schools, Canadian universities should join the leading edge of this new experiment and turn this new technology to good use. The rest of the world is already thinking big about the future of higher education. We should too.
Michael Cotey Morgan is Raymond Pryke Chair at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he teaches international relations and history.